Don’t Go Back to Rockville

I’ve been reflecting on Proust for the last few days. Here’s a passage about going home again:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But there are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. And great fatigue followed by a good night’s rest can to a certain extent help us to do so. For in order to make us descend into the most subterranean galleries of sleep, where no reflexion from overnight, no gleam of memory comes to light up the interior monologue — if the latter does not itself cease — fatigue followed by rest will so thoroughly turn over the soil and penetrate the bedrock of our bodies that we discover down there, where our muscles plunge and twist in their ramification and breathe in new life, the garden where we played in our childhood. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. What once covered the earth is no longer above but beneath it; a mere excursion does not suffice for a visit to the dead city: excavation is necessary also. But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight, than these organic dislocations.

Present Day

Made it home safe and sound yesterday afternoon, but the final approach was a bit shaky. By which I mean, the plane was wobbling from side to side for the last 10 minutes before we touched down. I pounded a G&T at the terminal bar to steady the old nerves, then Amy & I headed over to baggage claim.

The Christmas-day exchange of presents was kinda funny. Amy told her parents that they could shop for me off my Amazon wish list, but I think they misunderstood her and bought nearly everything off my wish list. When they first checked out my list (and hers), they told her, “But you guys only have books and CDs on your list!”

Not anymore! It became a running joke on Sunday afternoon, as I opened package of books after package of books:

Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style

Paco Underhill’s Call of the Mall and Why We Buy

Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker

Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History

Collections of essays from Emerson and Orwell

Robert Strassler’s Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, for when I feel like redelving into that subject.

Her father said, “That oughtta keep you occupied for a week or so.”

Now, I was mighty appreciative of all the books (on top of the aforementioned copy of Black Hole), as well as the 5-quart stand mixer, but the problem arose the next day, as we began packing. We started to consider shipping all the books home (including the stuff I bought at Faulker House, and the Sam Cooke bio I just finished, and the copy of Little, Big that I brought down, as well as the multiple books that Amy received), before a severe redistribution of clothes, toiletries, etc., enabled us to get all the books into our one suitcase. Fortunately, Amy’s clothes don’t take up too much space. All I brought with me on the flight was The Future and Its Enemies and the Jane Jacobs book.

At the terminal yesterday morning, we discovered that the suitcase weighed more than 60 lbs., which should’ve led to a $25 overweight charge. Fortunately, they waived the fee because of my Elite status on Continental. Then we were allowed to cut into the security line, right in front of some crippled kids and nuns. Yay!

On Monday, we returned to the French Quarter, got more beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and walked around for a while. Plenty of people were out walking; nowhere near pre-Katrina numbers, but it was still heartening to see so many people vacationing there.

That led us to wonder about who’s choosing to go. Were they people who’d booked their trips pre-Katrina, or did they decide to go after, to boost the economy (and find cheap deals)? We should’ve asked, but we’re morons, so hey.

Instead, we bought cheap T-shirts at a souvenir shop! We picked up a couple of “I (Heart) NO” shirts, a NOPD (Not Our Problem Dude) shirt and a great one that read “I Stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was This Lousy T-Shirt, a New Cadillac and a Plasma TV.” How could we resist? If you heard some of the stories about how people are spending their FEMA money, you’d blanch.

And that’s about all I have to report on. The Quarter looks like it’s doing okay, but I can’t say anything about the rest of the city. I still don’t know how they’ll manage to get people to move back, and how they can jump start any industry besides tourism in NO,LA. Amy & I entertained some idle thoughts about what it would take for us to move down there, but were stumped as to what sort of city it could possibly become.

Maybe some of the books on my new reading list will help me answer that question.

(Update: Witold Rybczynski at Slate just posted a piece about this subject)

Art and Life

Arts critic Terry Teachout nearly died from congestive heart failure. He wrote an elegant piece about the experience. It includes a lovely passage from a novel I’d never heard of, The Edge of Sadness:

I believe with all my heart in the mercy and providence of God, and I believe in a future unimaginably brighter and better than anything I have known here–and yet of course the whole difficulty is that I have known and have loved “here.” Very much. So that when the time comes for me to go, I know that I will go with full confidence in God–but I also know that I will go with sadness [. . .]

You oughtta read the whole post.

Little Gil in Slumberland

I get nice presents for my friends, but I have to admit that I save the best ones for myself. Last year, it was the seriotypes of women’s portraits by Lorenzo Mattotti. This time around, I got myself this hardbound collection of Little Nemo color comic strips printed at their original 16″ x 21″ Sunday paper size. It’s a thing of beauty.

No, seriously

Harold Pinter used the occasion of his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to attack Bush & Blair over Iraq. Perfectly within his rights.

Karl Ritter, the AP writer covering the event, wrote, “The Nobel committee has not shied from rewarding writers who make a stand against authority, notably in rewarding the literature prize to Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970.”

No, seriously.

What Goes On

Hey, gentlereader! Sorry to be absent for a while (except for those little goofy posts). I’ve been in a little bit of a writing-malaise lately, taking a mini-summer break.

I’ve also been exercising for the first time in forever. The upside is that I’m feeling a bazillion times better, even though all I’m doing is a half-hour on the treadmill. The downside is that I sweat worse than Patrick Ewing by the time I’m done. After that, I’m really not in a writing mood.

It’s only been about 3 weeks of exercise, but that’s an achievement for me, since I have zero willpower. I don’t run down physically, but it’s really tough to motivate myself to keep going. So nowadays I either pivot the gigantor-vision TV around so I can watch a baseball game while I’m treading, or I put an issue of the City Journal up on the display, so’s I can read while I’m on. Most magazines have too small a point size for me to read on the treadmill; I’m really hoping The Economist comes out with a large-print edition for myopic, out-of-shape mo’fo’s like myself.

Anyway, this post is more in the update mode than one with a particular theme. This week’s book is A Canticle For Leibowitz, after I got bored silly by Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I hoped for more out of that book, but through the first 85 pages it really focused far more on the biography of Proust than on the literary writing of Proust. Those are two really different things, and I’m not sure what Botton was thinking in focusing on that stuff. I’ll read the rest of it some evening, just to see if it gets better.

I’ve also been answering people’s questions about the Merck/Vioxx case. I mean, I’ve been trying to get them to understand the questions they’re asking, because the world’s a lot more complicated than “Did Merck lie?”

So today’s big lesson was that there’s a drug with more bizarre problems with Vioxx. A journalist called me earlier today to ask about some drug companies. Then he mentioned Mirapex, and wanted to know if I had anything to see about “the lawsuits.”

I’d never heard of the drug, so I googled it whle we were talking. This is what I found. Yup! There’s a Parkinson’s drug that may leave users with “powerful urges to gamble, shop, have sex and eat compulsively.”

Or, as I like to say, “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature!”

Compositions for the Young and Old

Last year, I built a library in the rec room downstairs in my house. In the process, I developed my only handyman skill: handling a powered drywall screwdriver and stud-finder. I can do nothing else of use in the home, but I can put up wall-mounted shelves. Unfortunately, I can’t put up enough of them.

When I finished putting books on the shelves, I found that I had two stacks remaining on the floor. They were the volumes on WWII and cryptology history that I always plan to read as source material for My Great Novel. I tucked them off the side of my new sofa, generally out of sight.

In little more than a year, they multiplied. Now there are 20 stacks of books on the floor, and the subject matter’s grown pretty diverse: literary fiction, comic strip collections, travel guides, Rembrandt books, collected letters, and more. Keep in mind, during the five months in which I was reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (February to July), I didn’t buy any books, new or used.

I have plans to renovate the adjacent room into a combination gym/library-annex, but the basic conclusion is inescapable: I have too many books.

Of course, the problem isn’t just space; it’s time. It’s not, “Where will I put them all?” It’s “When will I ever read even half of them?”

So, last weekend, I began the painful process of removing books that I’ll never get around to reading.

Every bibliophile knows how daunting a task this is. It constitutes a surrender, an admission of failure, to say, “I will never spend the time to read this book [let’s say, A Book of Memories, by Peter Nadas].”

When you get down to it, two titles alone — the Riverside Shakespeare and the Bollingen collected Plato — could be the reading of a lifetime for me, so it’s not exactly like I’m closing off a world of possibilities by casting off unread books by Nadas, David Foster Wallace, Mary Caponegro, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Carole Maso, along with mass market paperbacks of Melville, Beckett, Milton and others (my eyes simply won’t forgive me if I subject them to typesetting of that size; some books will need to be re-bought in trade paperback).

Will I ever read 950 pages of William Vollmann’s novel about French settlers in Quebec? Non. As worthwhile as the book may be, I’ll simply never devote the time to it, not when there are so many other books I want to get to, as well as the ones I want to return to, those that I read in my youth (or greater immaturity, however you want to phrase it). I feel the pull of those books from my own past, the desire to return to Homer, Cervantes, Pynchon, Dostoevsky, the Tragedians, Gaddis, from where I am now, where I’ll be 5, 10 years from now. I already look forward to returning to Proust before I’m 50, if I live that long.

This talk of triage is a long-winded way of getting around to something I found when I was going over my shelves this week: A 1996 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction entitled, “The Future of Fiction”.

The magazine featured contributions by several authors whose books I’d just pulled out of my library. As the aforementioned D.F. Wallace wrote in his intro, “This job involved sending out a letter about a year and a half ago inviting a number of writers and editors under c. forty-five to write whatever they wanted on the topic of where they thought literary art (literary art in general, or literary art in relation to culture, or all of these, or none) was heading in the next century.”*

The list, compiled by Wallace and the Dalkey Archive Press, constitutes what must’ve been a powerhouse lineup of literary writers from the era. A few of them went on to success — John O’Brien’s novel Leaving Las Vegas got made into a movie, and Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections was picked for Oprah’s Book Club (until Franzen acted like an elitist prick about it) and also won the National Book Award — but the rest of these writers haven’t exactly made a dent in the public psyche in the intervening near-decade.

Perhaps the other under-45 writers of 1996 who’d go on to make names for themselves were too busy to respond to the RoCF’s letter. As inconsequential as I find Dave Eggers’ writing, he does seem to have a heck of a work ethic. I don’t know if anyone was paying attention to Jonathan Safran Foer, Heidi Julavits, or David Sedaris back then (God knows I’m not paying attention to them nowadays), or if Wallace and the Dalkey people simply assembled a list of young, avant-garde writers without taking into account whether they’d amount to anything.

By “amount to anything,” I’m applying an unfair criteria to these writers; namely that they sell books. Being avant-garde means never having to earn back advances.

Back to the future. It’s bad enough when science fiction writers are asked to predict the future; telling a newspaper editor or conference organizer, “Science fiction is a metaphor that helps us interpret the present,” never convinces anybody to stop asking the question. In response, they’ve offered up visions of hydroponic gardens, sinister zaibatsus, point singularities, organ farms, etc., without ever getting around to the ubiquity of the cellphone.

So asking a passel of avant-garde authors to discuss where fiction and/or culture is going may not’ve been a great idea.

Too many respondents complained about computers and word-processing, hypertext, CD-ROMs, and reader interactivity. As with everyone else, these writers appear to have been fooled by the 1990s press coverage of Jaron Lanier, Stewart Moulthrop, and the early Internet pioneers, who promised a world in which “readers” would be choosing their own paths through novels, deciding characters’ fates themselves, and wearing funny “eyephones” (presumably while listening to Dee-Lite or the Soup Dragons). Some writers lamented, some reveled.

Of course, nothing followed that path.

Instead, we got the hyperproliferation of the Internet, super-small cell phones with built-in cameras (and Bluetooth!), movies on DVD, iPods, flatscreen TVs, and a war with Global Jihad. During that time, books stayed books. Some genres flourished, some withered.

Some of the writers in the magazine seemed to map the isolation of their writing lives onto the lives of the reading public. In defining themselves as avant-garde, they almost professed a willingness to ignore the world around them, all the better to devote time to their craft. As such, they managed to miss the single largest publishing phenomenon of the last decade: Oprah’s book club.

I could read over every word of that magazine again, and I’ll bet there’s not a single instance when someone wrote anything to the effect of, “Toni Morrison’s books will become incredibly popular after Oprah Winfrey talks about them to her viewing audience,” or, “William Faulkner’s novels will become bestsellers again when Oprah considers them a good summer reading project.” Ms. Morrison does get mentioned in the issue, but it’s an odd circumstance.

They’re supposed to be writers, not prognosticators. I mean, is it Franzen’s fault that, in 2000-2001, he wrote in The Corrections, “It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930s, she’d seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off . . . But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts”?

My point is, the world is always happening somewhere else. Try to remember September 10, 2001. (I was watching Giants @ Denver on Monday Night Football.)

The future ain’t what it used to be. That’s pretty obvious, but not my main reason for this post. It’s not the cluelessness of these writers, so much as their self-importance and pretension that irritated the heck out of me, as I reread passages from the issue.

And in a sense, maybe this all comes back to Franzen’s problems in 2001 with Oprah. Is the “literary avant-garde” so esoteric and out of touch that the reading public finds them irrelevant?

In his offering for the RoCF forum, “I’ll Be Doing More of Same,” Franzen remarked, “Today, when I try to think of American novelists who might be heeded as a cultural authority, the list begins and ends with Toni Morrison.” In the past few years, I don’t recall anyone pointing out the irony of this remark, as several of Morrison’s books ended up on Oprah’s book club list. Oprah also made a movie of one of Morrison’s books, Beloved, and is rumored to be working on another.

Fortunately for Franzen, he doesn’t explain what it means to be a ‘cultural authority.’ It might mean a phrase he uses earlier in the essay, “a novel that Americans who considered themselves civilized found it necessary to have read,” but I’m not sure. As I mentioned, he’s not a very good writer, nor much of a thinker.

In fact, from the comfort of post-Cold War 1996, he could write, “The American writer today faces a totalitarianism of commercial culture analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of East Bloc writers had to contend,” and apparently mean it. In the closing paragraph of his essay, he compares junior executives with Hitler and reiterates the point that the bookselling marketplace is equivalent to totalitarian Soviet dictatorship. Because having your book remaindered is the same as being abducted in the night by the Stasi.

Like I said, it’s not the cluelessness, it’s the self-importance. I can handle stupid; I can’t handle stupid that thinks it’s smart.

* * *

Is that why, among the first books I took down from my shelves for the never-to-be-read stacks (hello, Strand!), so many were by these contemporary authors?

I’ve held onto a few books by these writers: collections of essays by Sven Birkerts (who once wrote a nice blurb for a book I was publishing), Vollmann’s The Atlas (worth a shot, I figure), and Wallace’s Infinite Jest (but only because I’m pissed off about how long it took me to read it back in 1996; it’s not like I’ll ever sit down with it again). And I’ve retained a ton of them from living, youngish writers whose work I like, or at least want to try out sometime: Irvine Welsh, Neal Stephenson, Orhan Pamuk, Stephen Wright, Bruce Wagner, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Richard Powers (sentimental for when I was a different person), Jim Shepard, among others.

“Maybe it’s just me”. I don’t like to extrapolate my changing moods onto the wider world, because my circumstances are pretty peculiar. Having read a passel of contemporary literature, and having published some of it for a few years through my press, it’s clear my interest in it has waned, but there’s still a segment of the reading public that cares about this sort of writing. After all, we continue to see successful books published by Foer, Eggers, Cunningham, Wallace, and Z. Smith. Not always over-the-top successful, but at least people buy them.

I would say that it’s just a matter of my becoming an old fart, but I don’t think I’m alone in this impression that there are fewer authors of merit putting out worthwhile books. I had a conversation several months ago with Elayne Tobin, a writing professor at NYU, and David Gates, book/music writer for Newsweek. I asked them to name any novels since 1980 that they believed will reach canonical status. (To paraphrase Orwell, I’m using the term “literary canon” pretty loosely, and I’m taking it for granted that a literary canon exists, a thing now denied by plenty of people.)

(I told Elayne and David, “Take Philip Roth off the table.” A lot of people have extra-literary issues with Roth, but I find him to be the closest thing contemporary America has to Balzac. On the other hand, I’m a Jew from the northeast, so I may have a stilted impression of the value of Roth’s writing.)

As Harold Bloom writes in The Western Canon when trying to compose a list of “contemporary canonical” works, “I am not as confident about this list as the first three. Cultural prophecy is always a mug’s game. Not all of the works here can prove to be canonical; literary overpopulation is a hazard to many among them. But I have neither excluded nor included on the basis of cultural politics of any sort.” He goes on to offer 17 pages’ worth of candidates from the “Chaotic Age” of his Vico-esque schema; as many pages as the other three eras (Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic) combined.

They pondered a bit, then Elayne offered up Midnight’s Children, by Rushdie, and Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore.

Gates thought The Virgin Suicides might be a lasting book of our time. I’d never read any of the three, so I sat down with Eugenides’ novel shortly after that evening; I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it was in “lasting” class. I’ll pick up Lorrie Moore, as well as Rushdie’s book sometime, despite having read his awful rock-n-roll novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

I enjoyed Stephen Wright’s Going Native, but it felt dated the most recent time I read it, less than a decade after its release. Gould’s Book of Fish is my favorite book of recent vintage, but I know it’ll never achieve renown. Hasn’t stopped me from buying extra copies to lend to friends.

But none of us could offer up any slam-dunk, “People will still be reading this book in 50 years” novel to come out since 1980. Oh, we could mention personal faves, but not works that we felt future generations would teach and love.

Did we have them before? Two or three years ago, I met up with a friend of mine from my freshman year of college. He said to me, “Y’know, I still have a pile of books in my bedroom that you recommended back when we were in school.”

I blanched. “Please throw them out and never tell me what they were. If you want, I’ll even buy a bunch of better books to replace them. Just don’t tell me what I thought was good when we were 18.”

Thanks for listening.

–Gil

* Later, Wallace writes, “[T]he pieces themselves are mostly pretty discursive, and I don’t feel like anybody wants to hear me discursing about discursion.” Which is funny, insofar as this is the guy who wrote a 981-page novel with an additional 96 pages of footnotes . . . reviewed in that very issue of RoCF!

In fact, the end issue was a section of book reviews. I flipped through it from the back to see if I had read any of the books. Within a few moments, I realized that I didn’t even know any of the authors. It took me 15 pages to find one I knew; as it turned out, it was an author I knew personally, and whose work I’ve published. In fact, I reissued the same novel in the review (Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man) 5 years after this RoCF came out. Small world.

Whatcha readin’?

Here’s a summer reading list (PDF) of NYC-types and other smartypants. The official VM fiancee was happy to find that Harold Bloom adores one of her favorite books, John Crowley’s Little, Big. My book this week is Madame Bovary, as mentioned a few days ago. On the blogroll to the left I also put in the link to everydamnbook (.xls) I’ve finished since 1989, when I went to college. Oh, and my Amazon wish list. If, y’know, you wanted to buy me a book, movie, or record.

Corporate Synergy?

This morning, I read a neat article about co-op advertising in bookstores (better known as “pay for play”, which helps insure that deep-pocketed publishers get the most exposure for their books).

Then, on a whim, I hit Amazon’s “most-preordered books in Literature and Fiction,” when I came across this. Evidently, The Testing of Luther Albright “heralds the beginning of what bodes to be a substantial writing career” for MacKenzie Bezos.

I wonder if the publisher (Fourth Estate) has to pay co-op advertising for the book on Amazon, SINCE THE AUTHOR’S HUSBAND IS AMAZON CEO JEFF BEZOS. I also wonder if the Amazon.com reviewer felt any pressure to, um, say the book is any good.

Anyway, there are a bunch of reasons that I closed down Voyant Publishing, my “literary” imprint. This sorta stuff was a contributing factor, to say the least.

Book News

Official VM pal Paul Di Filippo has a new collection of short stories out: The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories! You oughtta pick it up ASAP, because it’s got a character who is just passingly based on me (ok, just barely, but it’s SOME sorta immortality, right?)!

Paul Di F.’s also got a new comic-book miniseries coming out soon! It’s a sequel to Alan Moore’s Top 10, which I enjoyed a bunch.

You should probably just head over to Paul’s site and check out some of his other projects. He’s a heck of a writer and a good guy, besides.